It’s September and still hot as blazes. While we often think of the slow cooker for those long cooked winter stews, the slow cooker is the premier tool for summer cooking as well. Think of turkey breast, pork roasts, even lamb shanks. It generates very little heat so your kitchen will stay cool without the added heat of the oven or stove top. Here are a few tips for using your slow cooker during the long hot days of summer.
Summer in the Slow Cooker Tips
•Consider buying two or three slow cooker in different sizes. You can then make the main dish and side at the same time if you wish. I suggest a 3 or 3 1/2-quart oval, and a 5-quart round or oval as a start.
•The slow cooker is user-friendly and very economical, utilizing about the same amount of energy as a 75-watt light bulb. It takes much less electricity to use a slow cooker than a conventional gas or electric oven. On the HIGH setting, you will use less than 300 watts. It is an excellent alternative method of cooking on extremely hot days when energy alerts recommend reduced use of electrical appliances and won’t add heat to your kitchen like an oven does.
•There are two cook settings on the most basic slow cooker: LOW and HIGH. These work as efficiently as the digital models, just you have to be aware of the timing. The LOW setting uses 80 to 185 watts and and cooks in the temperature range of 170º to 200ºF. The HIGH heat setting is double the wattage, 160 to 370 watts, and cooks at a temperature of 280º to 300º, with slight variables due to size of cooker, temperature of the food, and how full the crock is. There is a KEEP WARM setting, but that is not for cooking or reheating of food.
• Some of the best summer dishes to make in the slow cooker:
-3 hour boneless chicken breasts
-roasted winter squash halves
-corned beef for reuben sandwiches
-turkey breast or thighs
•Certain foods are NOT suitable to slow cooking. These include tender steaks, large loin roasts such as prime rib, recipes that quickly sauté meats or wok cooking, poultry with the skin on (this triples the fat content of the dish), pies and cookies, layer cakes, pasta (except for orzo and some recipes for small tube pastas that specify no cooking), regular rices, except for converted rice (which holds its shape during long cooking), fresh delicate seafood, cheese and dairy products like milk and sour cream (use evaporated milk or else add regular dairy products during the last hour of cooking).
•Get in the habit of spraying the crock with nonstick vegetable or olive oil cooking spray before every recipe to prevent sticking and to facilitate easy washing of the crock.
•Hard heavier vegetables (such as carrots, winter squash, potatoes, turnips, onions) take longer to cook than meat, so place them on the bottom of the cooker and set meat or poultry on top and pile up around the sides. Unskinned potatoes keep their shape better and smaller pieces cook faster than larger chunks and whole potatoes. Cut all different vegetables in one dish into uniform bite-sized pieces so they will cook evenly. Lighter vegetables (such as corn, peas, and summer squash), can be layered on top or added halfway through the cooking time.
•Always be aware of how much liquid you are using in a recipe, especially if adapting from a traditional oven or stove top recipe. Only add the amount of liquid listed in the recipe, even if it seems like not enough since a lot of juices from the ingredients will collect. The slow cooker does not evaporate any liquid so less liquid is needed.
•If you are leaving the slow cooker unattended all day or night, it is best to cook on the LOW setting. That way there is no chance your food will overcook. Most pot roasts, stews, soups, and chili all cook best on LOW.
•If you are not at home during the entire cooking process and the power goes out, throw away the food even if it looks done. If you are at home, finish cooking the ingredients immediately by some other means: on a gas stove or on the outdoor grill. If the food was completely cooked just as the power went out, it should remain safe up to two hours in the cooker with the power off.
•If you are pressed for time, prep ingredients the day before cooking by chopping vegetables and storing separately in sealed containers or plastic storage bags. Cover cut potatoes with water to prevent discoloring. Ground meat can be browned and refrigerated overnight as long as it is fully cooked (browned roasts, cubed meat, and poultry all need to be prepped just before cooking for safety since they are not fully cooked). Fresh poultry pieces can be quickly grilled on an outdoor grill, then immediately frozen for later use. Ingredients, except for meat and poultry, can be assembled in the crock and refrigerated, covered, overnight; in the morning, you just pot the crock into the housing and turn on the machine.
•Unless noted in the recipe, thaw frozen foods before placing in the slow cooker so that the food temperature can reach 140º as soon as possible. This is very important since frozen foods can slow the heating of the cooker and leave your stew or braise at too low a temperature for too long a time to be safe to eat. I never place frozen foods in the slow cooker unless a recipe specifically calls for it as it throws off the heating of the contents. Never thaw foods of any type in the slow cooker.
•You will see lots of instructions that say never to lift the lid during the cooking process. On one hand, that is a good rule; on the other hand, that is impossible. As the contents of the slow cooker heats up and create steam, of a natural water seal is created around the rim of the lid as the vacuum is formed. The rim of the lid will stick in place when gently pulled. This is important for the even cooking of the food within. Check your dish for doneness halfway or near the end of the cooking time, especially if it is the first time you are making the dish. When you place the lid back on, it takes 20 to 30 minutes for the internal temperature of the contents to come back to the proper cooking temperature.
•Taking your full slow cooker to a buffet or picnic as a handy serving container? If you do not have a lid latch, wrap the lid with foil to secure it in place. The cooker can be wrapped in a clean, thick towel on the car floor or in a box in the trunk, or placed in an insulated cooler (with towels wrapped around to prevent slipping while driving) to retain heat for a long journey. Upon arriving at your destination, plug in and set to KEEP WARM or LOW up to 2 hours before serving.
• DO NOT use the slow cooker crock in the microwave or on the stovetop.
•Do not store cooked food in the refrigerator in the crock; it will not cool down and chill the contents properly.
Chinese Apricot Pork Roast with Buckwheat Soba Noodle Salad
Created for Rachel Ray Magazine a few years ago then adapted for Family Favorites, this is one of the easiest recipes to make and the sauce goes together in minutes from pantry items you picked up last time you cruised the ethnic foods aisle of your supermarket. Use Chinese plum or apricot sauce — sweet, savory, sticky, and spicy all at the same time, used for glazing roasted meats or as condiments for dipping. The plum sauce (hoisen, which also comes wheat free) is dark and the apricot sauce (duck sauce) is light colored; use them interchangeably. The sauce has a positively euphoric aroma while cooking.
The lean pork loin roast (NOT a tenderloin) will be tied for easy handling. Don’t skip the fresh green onion and cilantro garnish; it really complements the roast flavors.
Serve with jasmine rice or or this wonderful soba noodle salad that is simplicity itself and so good even the kids will devour it. Dried buckwheat soba noodles are available in natural foods stores and ethnic groceries. The roast is great the next day with warm flour tortillas or sliced cold for sandwiches.
Cooker: 3 1/2- to 5-quart oval
Machine Setting and Cook Time: High Heat: 4 to 4 1/2 hours
- 1 boneless pork loin roast (about 3 pounds)
- 1 (12-ounce) jar duck sauce or hoisin sauce (about 3/4 cup)
- 1 tablespoon chili-garlic sauce
- 1 tablespoon mirin, Shaoxing rice wine, or rice wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons Asian (dark) sesame oil
- 3 cloves garlic, pressed
- 2 tablespoons grated or finely minced peeled fresh ginger
- 4 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1/3 cup diagonally sliced green onions, white and some of the green, for garnish
- 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish
- Buckwheat Soba Noodle Salad
- 20-ounces dried buckwheat soba noodles
- 6 tablespoons plain sesame oil
- 2/3 cup rice wine vinegar
- 3 tablespoons light Chinese soy sauce or Japanese soy sauce
- 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced, the white and most of green
1. Spray the crock with non-stick vegetable cooking spray and arrange the roast inside. In a small bowl, combine the duck sauce or hoisin sauce, chili-garlic sauce, mirin, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, and ginger; vigorously whisk in the cornstarch (this will help thicken the sauce while cooking). Pour over the pork roast.
2. Cover and cook on HIGH for 4 to 4 1/2 hours, or LOW for 8 to 9 hours, until fork tender and an instant read thermometer reads 160ºF.
3. While the pork roast is cooking, make the soba salad. Cook the noodles in a large pot of boiling water as directed on the package until twice their size, about 6 minutes. When tender to the bite, drain in a colander and rinse with cold running water. Toss noodles with 2 tablespoons of the oil to prevent sticking. Place in a serving bowl.
In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 4 tablespoons sesame oil, vinegar, soy sauce, salt, and sugar. Pour the dressing over the noodles; toss to combine and coat the noodles lightly with the dressing. Cover and chill until serving. Can be made up to 1 day ahead.
4. Remove the pork from the crock to a platter and cover with foil; let stand stand 10 minutes. Pour cooking liquid into a bowl; let stand 10 minutes, then skim any fat from surface of liquid. Cut into thick or thin slices, arrange on a platter, then sprinkle with the green onions and chopped cilantro. Serve the sauce on the side, gravy-style, and the soba salad nearby.
Excerpted from Not Your Mother’s Family Favorites, by Beth Hensperger. (c) 2009, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.
Text copyright Beth Hensperger 2014
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.